The 1812 political cartoon that helped popularize the “Gerry-mander,” named for Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. (Public domain)
Virginia lawmakers took the first step to creating an independent redistricting process by approving a bill that would create a 16-member commission.
The constitutional amendment has to pass the General Assembly again next year and then be approved by voters in a statewide referendum before going into effect.
The amended proposal passed unanimously in the Senate, which has passed redistricting reform efforts in the past. Fifteen delegates, many of whom are members of the Legislative Black Caucus, voted against it in the House.
“2021 is the first time for African-Americans to really have a voice in redistricting,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico. But there is no guarantee in the passed bill that African Americans will “have a seat at the table,” he said.
This year was the last year for that process to begin so it would be done in time for the next round of redistricting in 2021. If it wasn’t completed, the state would have to use its current process of General Assembly-drawn maps, which would be in place until the 2030s.
The approved bill took provisions from a proposal from Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, and one from Fairfax Democratic Sens. George Barker and Dick Saslaw as well as Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta.
The bill calls for a 16-member commission with eight legislators and eight citizens. There would be four legislators picked from each chamber of the General Assembly by legislative party leaders with two from each political party.
The citizens would be appointed by a selection committee of five retired Circuit Court judges. Four of those judges would be appointed by party leaders in the General Assembly and the fifth judge would be picked by the other judges.
Each of the four legislative leaders (speaker of the House, president pro tempore in the Senate and the party leaders of the other political party in each chamber) will provide the judges with a list of 16 citizens for appointment. Citizen appointments can’t be a member or employee of the General Assembly or Congress.
The judges will appoint two citizens from each of the four lists. A citizen will chair the commission, with meetings open to the public and communications subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
A majority of the citizen members must approve the congressional district maps. Three of the four legislative members of each chamber have to say yes to their own maps.
The commission will have to hold public hearings on the proposals and the General Assembly must approve the maps. The commission can redraw the maps one time before the Supreme Court of Virginia takes over.
“Although this bipartisan plan does not reflect every provision we urged in our original proposal, make no mistake: This reform will end partisan gerrymandering in Virginia,” redistricting reform advocacy group OneVirginia2021 wrote in a Facebook post.
“We are particularly gratified that the General Assembly adopted language that requires the commission to do its work in full public view and follow clear rules that keep our communities together.”
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, voted in favor of the bill and said he hoped the General Assembly would come back next year and pass additional legislation to require minority representation on the committee.
Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, said she was disappointed to see there was only a mention of the Voting Rights Act, not language from the federal law. She voted no on the measure.
“If the Voting Rights Act is gutted, this mention wouldn’t offer the protection the Voting Rights Act does,” she said.
She also didn’t like language that says “districts shall provide, where practicable, opportunities for racial and ethnic communities to elect candidates of their choice.”
“I just don’t think that racial fairness … minority fairness, cultural fairness should be parenthetical,” she said.
House Democratic leaders said they have “great hope” the bill will stop the creation of unconstitutional voting districts in the state, but said their members who voted no on the bill had good reason to do so.
“This plan does not ensure any minority representation on the redistricting commission,” House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said in a statement.
“If we are to take anything away from the Bethune-Hill case as well as the events of this legislative session, it is that our commonwealth must take greater strides toward achieving racial equity. Next year, it will be a top priority of our caucus to pass criteria that ensures minority representation on the redistricting commission.”
Redistricting reform has been a largely bipartisan issue, with differences in how much the process should change. Lawmakers in both parties have filed bills to clarify requirements for voting maps, which do not always have to be constitutional amendments.
Republicans in the House were clear they thought legislators should have a role in redistricting and have defeated bills that don’t reserve some role for lawmakers in the process.
“There are many of us who haven’t been big fans of independent commissions … and I was one of them,” Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, said on the floor. He said he was supporting the bill because it was a true compromise and he didn’t want the opportunity to change the process to escape lawmakers.
He said he also thinks there’s a way through the legislative appointment processes in the General Assembly to ensure minority representation on the possible future commission.
This year, Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, supported Cole’s bill, saying he was tired of the federal courts redrawing Virginia’s voting maps in a way that seems to target his party.
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